Ford's Virtual Test Track Experiment, or Virttex, will be the first automotive lab to feature a full-scale, moving-base driving simulator that tracks drivers' eye movements while using onboard gadgets and trying to maneuver curves on simulated highways. Ford will begin tests in the first half of 2001.
Ford executives touted Virttex at the 2001 North American International Auto Show, one of the largest industry events in the world and a showcase for cutting-edge safety features and technology advancements for cars and trucks.
Ford kicked off its presentation with a short spoof of a mustachioed yuppie driving his car while trying to eat a bagel, download email from a PC, synch his handheld computer in an onboard docking station, and pander to his boss on his cell phone--while a computerized female voice shouts out navigation instructions, and a computerized male voice beams, "You've got mail!" By the end of the video, the beleaguered driver has both hands off the steering wheel, commanding the vehicle with his left knee.
Ford's new facility underscores heightened concerns among automobile executives, who fear that the world of four-wheeled vehicles is poised for a head-on collision with the world of handheld and laptop electronics. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatal Accident Reporting System, 10.3 percent of all fatal crashes in 1999 were caused by driver distractions.
Distractions ranged from lighting cigarettes and eating hamburgers to applying makeup and even attempting to write memos. But the study showed an alarming increase in the number of electronics-related distractions as the number of Americans with handheld electronics devices has mushroomed.
The concern over the use of cell phones has reached a point where some counties and states have banned or are considering banning the use of mobile phones in cars. On Tuesday, for example, legislation was introduced in New York state that would ban such use. Supporters said the proposed legislation has support in the majority party in both houses of the legislature.
Additionally, the auto industry has generally agreed that laptop-style computers pose significant dangers to drivers and others on the road because reading the screens is too distracting. General Motors goes so far as to enforce a rigid rule among product developers that if the dashboard has any screen visible to the driver, the screen must be disabled whenever the car is not in park or neutral.
Despite that, there is considerable debate among industry executives about whether onboard communications should be controlled primarily by voice, touch or modified sight--including heads-up displays that flash email or weather updates on the windshield in a see-through manner.
Driving the digital debate
"The industry needs good, scientifically accepted design guidelines and testing," said Jeff Greenberg, chief of Virttex at Ford's research laboratory in Dearborn, Mich. "It is important that all of these systems be safe and that the scientific community agrees on what is acceptable."
GM has taken the lead in attempts to establish voice-activated communications as the standard for onboard telecommunications services.
GM's OnStar telecommunications division has more than 800,000 consumers, and the service is offered as an option on most GM vehicles. Toyota's Lexus and Honda's Acura luxury divisions have also agreed to sell OnStar's services, which will soon include automated stock quotes, weather updates, traffic reports, email, and even targeted advertisements delivered by a "Virtual Adviser" computerized voice over the vehicle's stereo speakers.
GM plans to launch Virtual Adviser later this month. Customers must first fill out a questionnaire on a private Web site indicating which stock symbols they'd like updated, which regions they'd like to track for weather patterns, and other specifics. When the driver turns on the vehicle and enables OnStar, he can then say, "Virtual Adviser, give me the weather," and the computerized voice will respond, overriding anything playing on the stereo.
Other automakers are taking a different approach. BMW, for example, is considering the use of so-called haptic technology--primarily relying on the sensation of touch--in order to add electronic complexity to stereo systems and navigation equipment.
Ford has not taken a stance on which technology is the most promising to reduce driver distraction. Executives say the industry needs far more scientific research before it agrees on standards--thus, its Virttex center. Ford plans to release the results of Virttex testing within a year.
The Virttex facility features a vehicle in a simulator attached to a hydraulic motion platform, or hexapod, which simulates the motion associated with more than 90 percent of the typical miles driven in the United States, from slick ice to dangerous curves to spinouts.
Six steel actuators, or hydraulic legs, hold the platform, a 24-foot virtual reality dome about 11 feet off the floor. The actuators are moved by a 440-horsepower pump that sends 190 gallons of hydraulic fluid per minute to the legs. This hydraulic fluid is pressurized at 3,000 pounds per square inch, letting the actuators move the simulator 10 feet laterally and longitudinally, simulating the g-forces experienced by drivers. The actuators can roll and pitch the simulator more than 20 degrees.
"We are committed to being the industry safety leader, and that means as we put new technologies into our customers' hands we have to find the safest way to test it," said Helen Petrauskas, Ford's vice president for environmental and safety engineering. "This simulator is yet another tool for Ford to better identify ways to...improve driver safety."